By Maha Bali, Cairo, Egypt
Becoming a connected educator is probably the best thing, career-wise, that has ever happened to me. I now have a support network of other educators, where I can draw inspiration, brainstorm solutions, share problems and victories, conduct research, carry out cross-cultural classroom collaborations, get emotional support and have loads of fun. It’s an incredible approach to professional development that is messy and yet helps me learn something new and important every single day; sometimes even every tweet or blogpost, such that I learn something new every minute I am online! (Maureen Crawford recently shared a great website on the value of Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) and how to develop them)
It’s Connected Educator Month (we need a month for this daily lifestyle?) and I thought I would write this post as a response to Pernille Ripp’s post The Downsides to Being a Connected Educator. I thought it might be appropriate to write about the perspective of a connected educator from Egypt and how the downsides differ slightly, because when I connect with other educators online, I am mostly connecting with educators from the global North, on their terms. In their language (English), on their timezone (unless they are in Europe, which is my timezone), discussing what is largely their context. The downsides from my perspective look different.
Let me take Pernille’s downsides one by one, and extend them (the headings in bold are from Pernille’s post, the paragraph text is mine)
You are no longer private.
This is true wherever you are: if you become an open connected educator, even though you choose what to share of yourself, you become much more exposed and you make yourself vulnerable to all kinds of opinion by others, some of which can really hurt. But there are two ways this is different for someone like me.
First, although everyone can be misunderstood, writing in your non-native language to people unfamiliar with your culture, you open yourself up to even more misunderstanding. Global interaction is not a panacea, and as Bonnie Stewart mentions, we should not assume something as complex as intercultural understanding can be achieved quickly and easily; certainly not in 140 characters and not by seeing one or two blogposts or comments, and not even by meeting on video online for weeks in a row. People in the UK/US know very little about my language, culture, context. I know quite a bit about theirs because I was educated in their schools/universities, I read their books and academic papers, I watch their movies and TV shows, and have lived in their countries. The reverse is not true. And still, there are cultural references they make that I misunderstand or do not understand at all. And there are elements of my own culture that I constantly need to make explicit for their benefit. To be understood. On the other hand, people often surprise me by how much they genuinely want to know and understand about me.
The other risk I take in writing publicly is political. I don’t write a lot of political posts, and that’s partly because I know academics in my country have been jailed because of their outspoken political views. I do write about political aspects of education (often in online magazines rather than my blog, such as Al-Fanar and Open Democracy), but I probably unconsciously self-censor.
You can get a big head.
I’ve always said that blogging is a mix of arrogance and humility. Humility in making yourself vulnerable, but also arrogance in believing someone else might actually want to read what you write. I agree with Ripp that the responses of others, the follow count, all of these, get to one’s head. It gets to my head when someone really well-known follows me on Twitter, or responds to my blog, or becomes a friend via email of DM or wants to hangout with me. And yet, somewhere in the back of my mind, I also know this: people are fascinated by the exotic, and isn’t it exciting for them to be in touch with an educator from Egypt? I love their excitement. I hope it’s for my person, but I also understand it may not start out that way.
One important thing to keep me grounded is this: my growing online following is not a sign that I am a good educator, but it may help me become a better digital educator. It’s not a sign of how well I connect, either. But it’s a sign of how well I connect online, and that’s still something.
You can get really jealous.
Ripp cites Michelle Baldwin’s post on the fact that being connected means you compare yourself to a much wider group of people, not just those around you. And you get jealous of what others can do. This is much more exaggerated when you are me. All the way here in Egypt. It’s more than missing that google hangout that is at 3am my time (and believe me, when it is at 1 or 2am, I actually make the effort to go to it; ask my husband who looks at my like I am nuts for doing this as often as about 1-2 nights a week). Sure, so I was a really active virtual participant at the #et4online conference, and I am on the steering committee for the 2015 conference, but I want to actually go and meet everyone in person, and although this is possible (pending funding from my uni and logistical parenting arrangements), I can do this very infrequently because the costs are high and logistics complicated. Sure, I get conferences here in Egypt, but the scale is totally different. Another example? I was asked to join the awesome facilitation team of #ccourses, but the original facilitators (many of whom are good friends already; some of whom I have gotten close to recently) have already all met in person.
You feel you need to be perfect.
Ummm I don’t really agree with Pernille on this one; I just recently published an article on some of my failures, and it wasn’t even in my blog, but in Hybrid Pedagogy. But here is what I do feel I need: I feel that I need to keep addressing my (mostly) Western audience about the topics they want to read, even when I want to talk about something else – and so I find I end up tailoring every post so they can understand it (more details than an Egyptian audience would need). I am not too upset about this, but it made me realize that the opposite is not true: a US blogger won’t naturally provide heavy context for their own blogging because they assume readers (even international ones) have some background on it. Because I work at an American university, I often can understand a lot of the context, but I wouldn’t have if I had been at a local university.
You lose time from other things.
Again, this is true – often its time away from family. Luckily, much of my synchronous meetings can take place at night after my daughter sleeps because most of the people I meet are on a US timezone. But if I could be doing this kind of thing in the mornings while I am at work (my preference when it’s possible like with someone in the UK) it helps my private life so much better (and work can afford it, since my online activity spills back into it indirectly).
You are perceived a certain way.
Obviously, we don’t blog about every single thing we do and sometimes a few popular blogposts we write become sort of like our trademarks or brands. People can start reducing you to just one or two aspects of your personality. As someone from a different country, people will often perceive me as this open connected educator from Egypt. So when another Maha from Egypt became part of my PLN (and we have strangely similar personalities) some people started to confuse us with each other, given how our name and location used to be our unique identifying features! This doesn’t often happen to every David from the Anglo world 🙂
You may forget about your local PLN.
This forgetting about local PLN is really important because you can start getting your head in the clouds and forget that your local context is very different, and all these open educators’ ideas are really difficult to implement at your institution. So this is a good tip from Pernille not to forget to nurture our local relationships (professional and personal) as well. For me, I hope to also bring in more local friends onto my online PLN: this both connects me to them more closely, gives me more to share with them, but also importantly increases global South presence in online communities and that, I believe, is useful for everyone involved.
You think there is a right way.
I have to constantly remind myself that not everyone is willing to make themselves vulnerable and out there. Not everyone is capable or motivated to deal with the constant slew of information that you get when you become connected. And more than that, not everyone is comfortable expressing themselves in English, or comfortable writing in blogging-style (there is a range, of course, but still), and that some people are not comfortable with the highly verbal learning that occurs online, because, let’s face it, it’s often highly text-reliant. And of course not everyone has the connectivity and the right devices to support that connectivity (like I would not be able to keep up with twitter without the iPad notifications).
You may become a target.
I am going to take this point away from what Pernille was talking about and change it into one where political bloggers & tweeters in Egypt can become targets for surveillance or worse. It’s more than what would happen to your regular blogger elsewhere.
Again, I note these downsides, but I embrace connectedness wholeheartedly. This recent article by Curran and Monaghan says:
Connected educators are redefining the role of teacher and student in the classroom. Being a co-learner is an opportunity to change the traditional role of the teacher, a chance to embrace change and break down the four walls of the classroom in order to think critically and act creatively with your students and colleagues from all over the country and around the world. This requires students and teachers alike to “get comfortable with the uncomfortable” as often, this is where true learning happens. Connected educators encourage, applaud and celebrate risk takers.
So even though this article was about the downsides, I have to admit that the same open online connected experiences that disconnect me a little from my local networks are the same ones that strengthen me in my local networks as well; that even though cross-cultural understanding and collaboration are not simple, they are so much more possible because of connected educators; sure, I am jealous that I cannot meet everyone in my network the way they meet each other, but I am fortunate to know them at all, and I would not have had those rich and meaningful relationships without the open connected environments and the cool, critical, caring and connected people who make them possible. So even though I share some of Pernille’s downsides, because my context is different, I have slightly different downsides. In some ways, the downsides of being a connected educator for me are so much more than if I had been in and from the US or UK. And yet, the potential for empowerment is also so much stronger. And that’s why I still connect 🙂